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More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement
by Ramez Naam
Broadway Books/Random House 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Scotto, 8/19/2007

Psychonauts throughout the years have often used the phrase “consciousness expanding” to describe the effects of psychedelic substances. It seems implicit to some people that the alchemical mystery which unfolds when a person’s nervous system encounters drugs like LSD and DMT is a dissolution of the typical constraints of human awareness; we temporarily enhance our understanding, our empathy, even, potentially, our capacity for serenity and peace. Arguments can be made that the psychedelic experience is not inherently expanding or enhancing anything, let alone consciousness, but that’s not really the point; on a person by person basis, the experience is so subjective and ephemeral that who can truly arbitrate the question?

Well, as it turns out, science is rapidly catching up to that question; with every passing year, we learn more and more about the inner workings of the brain. The quest begins with the desire to heal, but then quickly moves past healing the sick to enhancing the healthy. What would you do, then, in a future world where a single pill might produce beneficial effects to your mood—your consciousness—for months at a time, by altering an aspect of your genetic make-up? How would you react if you learned that technology existed to reliably trigger psychedelic experiences simply by delivering a precisely targeted electrical impulse to your brain—and what would you do if you knew that experience could be recorded and transmitted via the Internet to a pal in Kuala Lumpur who intended to play it back and experience it, just as you experienced it? How much more expanded would your consciousness be in a world like that?

In his remarkably entertaining new popular science book, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, software engineer Ramez Naam walks us through a giddying array of possible futures, all of which have very real and very clear roots in the science of the present day. In chapters such as “Choosing Our Bodies,” “Choosing Our Minds,” and “A Child of Choice,” Naam offers case study after case study demonstrating how techniques originally intended to heal will eventually be used to enhance the human experience.

For instance, in the quest to slow the onset of Alzheimer’s, researchers have learned that implanting modified neurons into the brain of a 60-year-old woman successfully stimulated overall neuron growth. There is a continuum here all the way to faster learning and augmented memory in the healthy. Naam points out that “smart drugs”—and he means reliably, measurably effective “smart drugs” like Ritalin and Adderall—are already incredibly common in our society; he quotes psychologist Ken Livingston, who says, “Even if you have never been diagnosed as having a problem paying attention, many of these drugs will improve your focus and performance.” What if we could engineer the same “performance enhancing” experiences without any of the nasty side effects, by using gene therapy to mimic the useful actions of these drugs in our brains? As we continue learning about the genes involved in personality, Naam notes, “This accumulated knowledge base could be used to create new drugs that sculpt or alter any aspect of human behavior: infatuation, pair bonding, empathy, appetite, spirituality, thrill seeking, arousal, even sexual orientation.” Try that on for consciousness expanding.

While unlocking the mysteries of the human genome and deciphering the topology of the brain, we see tantalizing hints that we may someday be able to expand our lifespans and at the same time “compress morbidity”—meaning we’ll live to be 150 or more and won’t be bed-ridden and miserable for the last 75 years of it. Drugs that mimic caloric restriction might someday truly fulfill the promise of making us thin and young-looking without really working at it. (Look, they’ve done this to some very interesting mice, so it could someday happen to you.) Paralyzed individuals are already controlling computers with nothing more than their thoughts—did you see that coming so fast even just five years ago? Blind people now have limited vision thanks to brain implants; devices called “deep-brain stimulators” can help treat the tremors of Parkinson’s, and maybe treat previously untreatable depression.

Naam’s important leap is that it’s inevitable that healthy people will want access to these technologies as well, especially if they prove safe and reliable. He never ignores the current risks and downsides (hey, turns out it might be dangerous to drill holes in your head), and he clearly admits when he is speculating about the future evolution of these techniques. But the sanest examples—cosmetic surgery, Botox, the rise of anti-depressants—make clear that he is on to something when it comes to how market forces will react. By the time he got to describing “digital video input interfaces” displaying “neural video format” in my head, I was completely hooked; I want eyes that can zoom and a brain with wireless satellite access. I want a thought-controlled skip button on the media player in my brain, I want 24/7 IMDB access to settle trivial disputes, I want pills that make me young and sexy and feel like I’m on MDMA for two months at a time (marketed, perhaps, as “Spring Break”). And what Naam makes especially, crucially clear is that use of these technologies should be your choice. You should have the freedom to do these things to your consciousness. You should have the ability to research and understand the risks and implications, and you should be allowed to make your own decisions. Sounds unfortunately familiar, no doubt.

The title of Naam’s book proudly announces his optimism. In Naam’s worldview, the overarching story of history is the way we have pulled ourselves out of the muck of evolution and built for ourselves a world of increased intelligence, longer life, and more luxury for everyone. He sees the technological and medical advances described in his book as continuing evidence that the world is on a path to improving its state, one nervous system at a time. His arguments face stiff competition in today’s world; some biomedical ethicists see grave risks in increasing the human lifespan, for instance, or allowing in vitro genetic manipulation to select for desirable traits in a human child. But as Naam points out, there was a time when blood transfusions and organ transplants raised the ire of ethicists and laypeople alike, and few would now questions the value of these techniques. Some argue that only the rich will benefit, but Naam offers convincing evidence to the contrary, showing that over time, technologies that improve the quality of life almost inevitably spread to the places where they can continue to do the most good.

In the end, the arguments against these enhancements sound like the voice of an irate grandfather seeing your mohawk and nose piercing for the first time. While the more conservative agenda shouts, “You kids get off my lawn!” the rest of the world—notably Asia, where support for these approaches is considerably higher than in the West—is going to get on with its transhuman self, producing competitive, economic advantages that the West will eventually have to respond to. Naam states early on that moving to ban these technologies—and in some cases, the bans are already with us—will eventually produce a black market. And, well, we all know how effective the black market can be.

Perhaps most importantly, Naam’s book is just a damn good read. Whether you agree with or fear his conclusions, he offers an eloquent tour of the current state of these technologies, and that in itself is worth the price of admission.

Originally Published In : in the Autumnal Equinox 2005 issue of The Entheogen Review

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