Building a Better You

How you’ll become stronger, faster, smarter.

Da Vinci’s view of perfection

Sooner or later—and probably sooner—science will be able to make you a better you: or at least a stronger you, a faster you, a you with perfect eyesight, excellent hearing, and a remarkable memory. I’m not talking about a clone (though that’s coming, too), but rather—to use the euphemism of choice for those who want to tinker—an “enhanced” you.

Enhancements will take various forms. In so-called “germline” therapies, scientists will rewrite the genetic code of embryos. They will permanently change the DNA of the resulting children (and their children, and so on) by giving them genes to make them taller or healthier or smarter. So-called “somatic” gene therapies will allow adults to change their DNA temporarily. Other enhancements will make us into cyborgs, fusing our flesh with extraordinary, microprocessed machines. And some enhancements will be fleeting chemical boosts, pharma cocktails that work magic, then wear off.

The Defense Department, which dreams of Terminator-like soldiers, is playing around with all kinds of enhancements—brain-machine interfaces, for example—in its secret labs. But for the most part, the enhancements will spin off from regular medical research. Scientists who want to cure colorblindness with gene therapy may invent a way for us see in the dark. Athletes will repurpose anti-cancer treatments to give themselves unnatural endurance. Experimental therapies for Alzheimer’s disease may prove to supercharge normal memory.

The enhancements will appear first as “therapy.” But doctors—barraged by insistent patients—will soon stretch the definition of therapy past its limit. (Here it’s useful to remember the history of plastic surgery, which severed its connection to health when the nose job was perfected.) In a decade, when the next generation of laser eye surgery has become standard, surgeons will not only repair the four-eyed who have 20/280 vision but may also operate on the 20/20 pilot who wants 20/10 vision. Mechano Growth Factor gene therapy will be tested first on victims of muscular dystrophy, but it won’t be long before 25-year-old fitness fanatics will be demanding shots from their doctors.

Man, made to the order of $6 million

Americans are ambivalent about the purported improvements. Our libertarian, democratic, and idealistic traditions encourage those who believe there’s a right to remake yourself however you please. Our religious and conservative traditions warn of tampering with what is beyond our understanding. American pop culture toggles back and forth between dystopian visions of enhancement (The Stepford Wives) and utopian ones (The Six Million Dollar Man—“We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better … stronger … faster.“)

Today we are bending toward dystopia: the unhappy genetic freaks of X-Men and Spider-Man, the “bio-synth” nightmares of Dark Angel, the Brave New World oppressiveness of Gattaca.

The ethical questions about enhancement may be fiendishly difficult to answer. Leon Kass, professional Jeremiah of biotech, warned in a Jan. 9 speech that enhancements were a “deformation of human activity.” Are they, as Kass suggests, a grand cheat, a way to avoid learning how to do necessary tasks and coping with painful emotions? Will enhancements impose vast new social inequalities? Will they make us inhuman?

Then again, a generation ago, the birth of “test-tube” baby Louise Brown also provoked philosophical pandemonium. (Kass was particularly unsettled.) Today, no one blinks at children born through in vitro fertilization. In 25 years, we may feel the same indifference when kids are tricked out with supereyes.

Slate’s “Superman” series takes an unusual approach to the ethical questions about enhancement. I am going to ignore them for the moment. Superman begins with the premise that before you can take a position on the morality of enhancement, you need to understand what you are moralizing about. Rather than start the journey in the bog of ethics, I’ll begin with the practical (and much more fun) questions about how humans might improve and how we won’t. Over the next five days, I’ll speculate about what’s possible, what isn’t, and when the possible might finally be real. What are the obstacles to human enhancements? What are the physiological and psychological costs of enhancements? Then, after a week of thinking about the practicalities of enhancements, I’ll return to the ethics. Suppose we can make ourselves better: Should we?

But for the moment, let’s stick to the science. I start today with the eyes. Is super-vision possible? Click here to find out.