The New Human

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.

Scientists, philosophers, and politicians are already weighing
in. But I’m convinced that the personal stories we tell each other
have as much power as public debate to shape our world. It’s at the
coffee shop and around the dinner table that this crucial
conversation about our future has to begin.

UTNE
UTNE
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