Why Are We Afraid Of Improving Humanity? | Vol. 3 / No. 40.4

Better, faster, stronger | Photo: U.S. Army RDECOM, CC BY 2.0

A recent study out by Pew has announced that “Americans are more worried than enthusiastic about using gene editing, brain chip implants and synthetic blood to change human capabilities.” But why?

In the research poll of roughly 4700 people conducted back in March, respondents were asked about three potential modifications to the human condition: first, “gene editing to give babies a lifetime with much reduced risk of serious disease,” second, “implanting brain chips to give people a much improved ability to concentrate and process information,” and third, “transfusing of synthetic blood to give people much greater speed, strength and stamina.” Whether these will become possible in the near-term is anyone’s guess, but when asked about whether they were “very enthusiastic,” “somewhat enthusiastic,” “somewhat worried,” or “very worried,” the combined “worrieds” had clear majorities in all three. Less-diseased babies were the best off, with a 68%-49% worried-to-enthusiastic ratio; brain chips for better processing were the worst, with a 69%-34% ratio; and improved physical abilities was in the middle with a 63%-36% split. (Obviously there were “enthusiastic but also worried” respondents.)

Among the reasons given for this negativity were the beliefs that the technologies would be employed “before they have been fully tested or understood;” that they could “could exacerbate the divide between haves and have-nots;” and that recipients “will feel superior to those who have not received them.” Additionally, there were the religious who (in smaller numbers than I would have expected) went with the old “playing god” canard — this time couched as “meddling with nature.”

People also thought these technologies would be more acceptable if they were only used to bring people up to their own best “natural” potential — like if the brain chips made you think as well as you could on your own on your “normal” best, least distracted and best-rested days. A separate focus group found that it was also more acceptable if they were being used to aid people with disabilities and illnesses, rather than to improve already healthy humans.

Maybe it’s to be expected from what is, in many places, a still deeply-conservative country. As can be seen in the social upheaval concomitant with white men losing their supermajority in demographics and politics, a large proportion of Americans are incredibly resistant to change. When the same respondents were asked about currently-available enhancements like cosmetic surgery, fully a third said that “elective cosmetic surgery is “taking technology too far.”” One is forced to wonder if there’s a great deal of overlap with the roughly one-third of Americans who think it’s more important to protect unviable embryos than conduct stem-cell research that could save living humans’ lives, and for that matter the 33% who still describe immigrants as a “burden.”

But I think there’s more to it than just conservatism. When the divide between the rich and the poor in America is higher, poor Americans are more resistant to social welfare programs. The more precarious your social standing, the less you want to offer assistance to someone you perceive as close to your social standing, even if it won’t affect your situation, because it might affect your relative situation.

And that’s part of what I’m seeing in this study as well: there seems to be a fear that “other people” will become better than them, meaning in relative terms, they’re worse off — more disease-prone, dumber, slower, weaker. Even if nothing has actually changed for them, and even if as a whole it means the country would spend less on health care, be more productive, and make smarter decisions. When asked about whether they’d use the gene editing on their own babies to reduce their risk of disease in the future, the results were a lot more positive — the split was 48-50.

I’m not saying it accounts for all of it — the splits were the same when asked if they’d want the other two enhancements on themselves — but it might begin to account for some the worries surrounding the adoption of human improvement technologies.

If we’re going to pursue the idea of expanding what “human ability” means, we’re going to need to take into account our fears of relative loss, or else (like with welfare) we might not see any collective gain.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.