October 31, 2020

Biohacking Is Scary, but Is It New?

6 min read

In August 2019, California passed a law to prevent its citizens from editing their own genes at home, in response to the rise of do-it-yourself gene-editing kits. The kits, which use gene-editing technology CRISPR, are meant for doing experiments on yeast cells, but hobbyists started experimenting on themselves. People trying to turn themselves into Wolverine isn’t an isolated fad, it’s part of a larger trend called biohacking, whereby folks implant computer chips into their arms that unlock their homes or get transfusions of young peoples’ blood in an effort to stay alive longer (which has not actually been scientifically proven to work).

While this all seems intriguing (and maybe a bit freaky), the idea behind it isn’t all that new. The moral implications of pushing the limits of human biology have been the subject of debate for hundreds of years. But as technology allows us to do weirder things to our bodies, are these conversations changing? Or are they the same as they’ve always been?

The human desire to modify our bodies might be as old as our species itself, and the most obvious example is probably tattoos. Ancient tattooing traditions have been documented across Southeast Asia, Polynesia, Indochina, North Africa, the Americas, and Europe. The oldest known tattooed mummy is 5,300-year-old Ötzi the Iceman. Ötzi was found in a glacier in the Alps, inked up 61 times. And if you’re thinking, “So what? Tattoos can’t give you superhuman abilities” — hear me out.

Tattoos were used much in the spirit of modern biohacking — to make people “better.” In the 1700s, Jesuit missionary Joseph-François Lafitau wrote about the way indigenous people in Canada used tattoos to treat toothaches. They tattooed nerves along the jawline connected to certain teeth, which stopped them from firing signals to the brain that made teeth hurt. Even Ötzi’s tattoos might have been therapeutic: British archaeologist Don Brothwell, who examined the mummy, noted that many of the tattoos were placed in areas of strain-induced degeneration and might have been used to alleviate pain.

While there’s no written record of any ethical debate surrounding Ötzi’s tattoos, there’s plenty of evidence that humans have long been weighing the pros and cons of biological enhancements. Some of these highly-debated technical enhancements were even a bit magical. The ancient Mesopotamian poem “The Epic of Gilgamesh” chronicles the trials and tribulations of a king’s search for immortality. Ponce de Leon was criticized for his search for the fountain of youth in Florida. In Medieval Europe, when alchemy was all the rage, anti-experimentalist Christian scholars decried it as ungodly and dangerous.

To the relief of those with “the universe revolves around the earth” sensibilities, no alchemist successfully created an elixir of life. But over the centuries, scientists continued contemplating human improvements- — particularly during the Enlightenment, when many people tried to use science to master nature. French Physician Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s philosophical work “Man a Machine” argued that “man is but an animal, or a collection of springs which wind each other up,” and contended that it was possible to manipulate human biology in the same way we might manipulate anything that follows the laws of physics.

In 1773, anticipating such advancements, Benjamin Franklin even wrote a letter detailing a scheme to preserve himself in a cask of wine: “‘I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country!”

It wasn’t until the 19th century that we started to figure out how genes work, and shortly thereafter, ideas about gene manipulation emerged. In 1865, Sir Francis Galton theorized that intelligence and personality traits were hereditary and proposed selective human breeding, i.e. eugenics. Eugenics programs became popular all over the world, including in the United States, Canada, Britain, and Nazi Germany. In order to eliminate unfavorable traits from the human gene pool, some American states passed laws forcing sterilization on 60,000 people considered unhealthy or mentally ill. The Nazis would go on to sterilize an estimated 400,000 people they deemed genetically inferior, and used eugenics to justify the extermination of Jews as “genetic aberrations.” Bioethicists point to this history as a big reason to be wary of gene-editing technology — that our quest for genetic purity easily devolves into virulent forms of scientific racism.

Even though CRISPR didn’t exist yet, some early 20th-century thinkers were just as critical of gene manipulation as today’s bioethicists. In 1923, British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane wrote the book Daedalus: Science and the Future, which predicted that manipulating genetics could improve, or at least change, human characteristics. Haldane envisioned a future in which humans could mutate their own genes and use in vitro fertilization to modify human biology. He also accurately predicted that these kinds of attempts toward “human advancement” would get a lot of bad press.

“There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion. There is hardly one which, on first being brought to the notice of an observer from any nation which has not previously heard of their existence, would not appear to him as indecent and unnatural.”

Haldane was incredibly skeptical of scientific advancements, and argued that they could only bring progress if there were advancements in ethics as well. One decade later, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, a dystopian novel warning of the pitfalls of a future with genetically-modified citizens and an intelligence-based social system. It’s widely believed that Huxley was influenced by Haldane’s work. Haldane is considered one of the earliest thinkers in the philosophical movement known as transhumanism, a movement that frequently overlaps with biohacking.

Transhumanist philosophers argue that human beings can, and should, use technology to augment and improve the human species.

The first self-described transhumanist group started at UCLA in the early 1980s, but soon, others sprung up all over the world. These were spaces where intellectuals could discuss how radical alterations to nature and humans would affect the future. In 1992, Max More and Tom Morrow founded the Extropy Institute to unify all of these groups under the umbrella of transhumanism.

A look through transhumanist articles and manifestos shows some pretty common themes. While there are exceptions, transhumanists often advocate for somatic rights — the idea that people should have control over their bodies and what happens to them. Many believe that taking anabolic steroids should be legal for the reasons same-sex marriage, abortion, and even voluntary amputation should all be legal. They are also big into prosthetics and implants (hence the voluntary amputation thing). They think aging should be treated as a disease.

While most transhumanists simply engage in philosophical debates and advocacy, some are more active in their attempts to take evolution into their own hands. In 2017, Josiah Zayner, CEO of a biohacking startup, attempted to edit his own DNA using CRISPR. In front of an audience, he jabbed a syringe full of his own CRISPR-edited DNA into his arm, claiming it would modify his muscle genes to give him bigger muscles. It didn’t work, and he received a ton of backlash for general idiocy and for potentially encouraging others to mimic him. He quickly walked back his enthusiasm for the stunt, telling people not to try it at home. But Zayner and many others still hope for a day when people will be able to edit their genes safely and ethically. The issue is we’re still not quite sure how to do that.

Biohacking — even the DIY kind — isn’t just for eccentric Silicon Valley tech bros who want more muscle mass. It can also lead to major therapeutic breakthroughs, like cybernetic prosthetics for those who have lost limbs. Even reading glasses are arguably a form of biohacking. So, how do we know when it is ethical and when it is not? Ethicist Alex Perlman argues that, in some cases, like with cybernetics, “the line between therapy and enhancement [is] morally irrelevant,” reflecting instead a semantic distinction. While the use of a given technology may be unethical, the technology itself is not inherently ethical or unethical. In other words, there is nothing particularly special about the ethics of biohacking as compared to the ethics of any other technology. Perlman also points out that enhancement technology already exists and none of the major ethical concerns noted above have come to fruition. She concludes that, “Ultimately, cybernetic enhancement experiments are not only ethical, they are base positive for society.”

Even with ethicists like Perlman giving us the go ahead, many of today’s criticisms of transhumanism mirror predictions that Haldane made back in 1923: that we would see these transformations as perversions. But maybe it was actually Huxley who was more on the money. What if biohacks become available only to people who can afford them, thus creating a permanent upper class of super-humans? Considering the specter of Holocaust-era eugenics, it makes sense to take steps to ensure that people are using the new technology wisely. But at the moment, the top concern seems to be about people making dumb mistakes and hurting themselves. According to Sen. Ling Ling Chang of California, “The technology is moving faster than regulations, so it’s important to be proactive about preventing safety mishaps by amateur users of CRISPR kits.”

Luckily, we have some time to figure this out. While California is getting ahead of the CRISPR craze, the resources you’d actually need to modify your own DNA are well beyond what you can get in a DIY kit — the technology just isn’t there yet. Still, it might be worth it to think ahead about how to legislate biohacking, because if history has shown us anything, it’s that trying to adapt our bodies is a truly human act.

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