The New Human

How the stories we tell will shape our future -- for better or worse


| May / June 2005


I've always believed that the world is made up of stories. So sometimes I close my eyes and take imaginary trips to places I've never been, trying to hear tales being told in a cafe in Lima, a bus in Karachi, a kitchen in St. Petersburg. Other times, as when I'm walking down the street at home in Minneapolis and catch a snippet of a story being passionately told by one friend to another, I try to imagine the ways that story will affect lives -- not only the lives of the people in the story, or those hearing it, but also those who are far away. Stories, like water, have an unusual power, a ripple effect.

Some stories get told so often they achieve the status of cultural myths. That's certainly true of our faith as Westerners in progress and perfectibility. While the impulse to improve our lot underlies much of what is good about modern life, it also fuels our rampant materialism. So many of the personal stories we tell are simply retellings of a shared belief that we ought to achieve more -- and have more as well.

In assembling our cover section, we began with a simple question: Where is the pursuit of perfection leading us? From plastic surgery and steroids to mood-altering drugs, human beings are already armed with a hi-tech arsenal for self-improvement. New tools in the form of robotics and genetic engineering are said to be on the way. We've always been skilled at using the technologies of war to end lives. Now science -- which has made great strides over the past century in helping us stay healthier -- may soon allow us to extend our lives beyond their natural limits.

But what, exactly, are we doing? Will changing the boundaries of our physical existence help us to live more richly, or does it have the potential to destroy us? Over one billion people on this planet do not have access to clean and safe drinking water. Millions more need treatment for diseases like malaria and HIV. How can we justify investing our resources and imaginations in robots, computer chip implants, and designer babies?

The environmental writer Bill McKibben argues that we should give up this dangerous fantasy and renew our ties to the natural world. 'The emergent science of ecology is easily summed up: Everything's connected,' he writes in the British magazine Resurgence (March/April 2005). 'But interconnection is anathema to a consumer notion of the world, where each of us is useful precisely to the degree that we consider ourselves the center of everything. We believe that pleasure comes from being big, outsized, immortal; now our zealots imagine genetically engineering us for greater greatness. But the testimony of the rest of creation is that there's something to be said for fitting in.'

'Transhumanism is the global warming of 10 years ago,' declared senior editor Jeremiah Creedon in reference to the effort to redesign our species, which is a major topic in our cover section. 'It's an issue we all ought to be talking about now.' The transformation of our very biology raises a different set of concerns than global warming, but it raises social and environmental concerns we need to address sooner rather than later.