Saturday, March 12, 2005

More Than Human

I just read Ramez Naam's More Than Human in one sitting. It's not a long book, but it is one of the best introductions to "the future of humanity" that I have read. Naam reviews current work in bio- and neurotechnology, from genetic engineering to brain-computer interfaces, and extrapolates them to give the reader a glimpse of what may lay ahead. The book does not go off on wild fantasy, however; it is grounded in the recognition that both politics and the limits of the technology itself will shape the exact course people choose to take. The tone is sober and honest but you still sense the potential in what is described.

Typical of the discussion within is the section on mental genetic enhancement, in which Naam uses a splendid example to put away the myths of a world of eugenically-identical minds. If you gave 1,000 children Einstein's DNA, you would not get 1,000 Einsteins. In fact, you would only get 4! The average human has an IQ of 100; Einstein is believed to have been around 160, a difference of 60 points. Studies show that roughly half of IQ is the result of genes, so the children would have a "starting" IQ of 130. Those with similar environments to Einstein's would be higher, those with worse environments would be lower. Sure, the average would be higher than the average for other people, but there would still be a dramatic variation in the outcome. When you consider that personality traits only show a 20-30% genetic correlation, the idea that people would all think or act like some ideal model is ludicrous. Naam then notes that it is the bioconservatives who favor a eugenic standard for what people can be like: their natural condition.

I would highly recommend More Than Human to anyone who is at all curious about where the current trends are leading us. Even critics of the developments described therein must admit that Naam does a fine job of explaining them.

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