If man’s capacity for change is characteristic of his very nature (Pic de la Mirandole was already thinking as much in his early Renaissance text, «On Human Dignity»), recent years have seen so much progress in this area that we now talk about the possibility of a «post-humanity» wrought by the application of technology to the human body, particularly the brain. These dreams of enhanced men were first introduced by science fiction writers and other authors of more or less visionary and marginal texts. But recent advances (particularly the birth of Dolly, in 1996) now lend a certain credibility to what passed as madness not so long ago. Today several different domains share dreams of mutation: pop culture (be it Manga heroes, Marvel products, or «Dark Angel»), which is most likely preparing the younger generations to live through transformations that would seem horrific or unthinkable to their elders; the search for the super soldier in some military institutions, such as Darpa in the US; the speculations of numerous scientists – Steven Hawking, Freeman Dyson, Rudy Rucker — about the future of mankind; and ideological movements – Transhumanist, Extropian, Singularitarian – who are inspired as much by these scientists as by sci-fi writers like Vernor Vinge, and are actively and programatically trying to promote the ideas of the transformed, posthuman man. These groups are marginal for now, but may see their sphere of influence increase greatly once these subjects become a subject of general public debate.
Many paths lead to the transformation of the human being:
Some want to stress our wellbeing, and thus situate themselves within the domain of health, but pushed to the extreme. They tend to see old age as a sickness that can be healed, and their goal is to obtain that eternal youth promised in ancient myths. There are many scientists today who believe that we could soon have a life expectancy of 120 years. Beyond that and we’re at the Hayflick Limit programmed in our DNA, and to overcome that we’ll need to develop technologies that go beyond traditional medicine. Other people, particularly those connected to the military, want to directly enhance the human being’s productive faculties to make him more efficient. This, then, is the true “enhanced man.” They want to increase physical strength and intellectual capacities, particularly those of memory and concentration (rather than creativity). A final, informal, section basically considers technology to be a hedonistic instrument in personal development. This movement prizes cognitive and morphological freedom, and is today represented by people like R.U Sirius, who coined the term “New Edge” in the 1990s to describe this hybrid of the neo-hippie and cyberpunk movements and research laboratories.
Current ways to increase longevity are still rather limited in scope. It would appear that intense calorie restriction may increase lifespan by about 30%, but this has never been proven in human beings and is an extremely debilitating practice on a day-to-day basis. Taking certain supplements, be they vitamins or DHEA, is an often controversial and sometimes dangerous matter. But the increase in longevity is never particularly significant. Aubrey De Grey, who invented the SENS programme, believes that we are approaching the problem from the wrong angle. It is impossible to stop the causes of ageing, because they are multiple, complex, and any action taken could be counter-productive. However, we know how ageing expresses itself — in a certain number of symptoms that we know how to treat separately. We should, then, look at the issue as “engineers” and not as doctors: we can fix the body’s “bugs” when they appear without having to master or fully comprehend the causes of these bugs. Other ideas go beyond those of Grey, “superhealth” projects involving a human body that has been transformed – by artificial organs (cyborg), nanotechnology, or synthetic biology. We don’t yet know if these technologies will produce something of value, but if they do, the more intense transformations that human nature would undergo would go far beyond the domain of health. Dreaming beyond the “enhanced body” are the Transhumanists, who envisage “uploading” the brain’s content onto an IT device, thus guaranteeing the “patient” virtual immortality: nothing, in theory, would stop such a “mind” being copied, saved, and downloaded… Some Transhumanists wants to see this progress with their own eyes, and are so interested in the cryogenic, a technology that they believe capable of freezing their bodies a few minutes after death so that they can be resuscitated by science when it has the means to do so. We can safely say that Cryogenics is in its infancy, and that real Cryogenics specialists view the possible confusion of their serious field with what they consider to be hare-brained speculation in a very unfavourable light.